Staten Island Amazon Workers Begin Union Drive, Drawing Lessons From Bessemer

In some ways, Amazon workers’ more than yearlong struggle for adequate COVID-19 protections and against corporate retaliation at the company’s Staten Island facility in New York City helped pave the way for this month’s unionization attempt at the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse.

Now, as the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) seeks a second election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), filing official objections Friday charging Amazon with engaging in illegal interference to defeat the union, Staten Island “JFK8” warehouse workers with The Congress of Essential Workers (TCOEW) tell Truthout they aren’t deterred by the outcome. Rather, their on-the-ground experiences in Alabama, where the unionization effort gained national attention but ultimately failed, have taught them hard lessons that will inform their own approach to unionizing JFK8.

“We all wanted the union push to be successful in Alabama, especially with the odds being totally against them, being that Alabama is a nonunion state. But the fact that they had the opportunity to vote as a facility was historic,” JFK8 warehouse worker Derrick Palmer told Truthout. “We have to take the bruises and pick it up where they left off. If anything it started a movement. It’s going to be like a domino effect.”

Palmer says the Bessemer push inspired JFK8 workers to take their labor organizing to the next level and start their own union drive. While Palmer says they’ve spoken with officials at a handful of allied unions, TCOEW organizers are pursuing an independent union that would be led directly by the facility’s workers. The outcome in Bessemer, they say, has solidified the choice as the best option for Staten Island’s more than 5,000 workers, especially since other unions have tried and failed to unionize facilities in New York.

In fact, TCOEW organizers say they’ve already called the NLRB to ensure they’re taking the proper legal steps in establishing their own local, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). They hope ALU will eventually represent workers not just in Staten Island but at other Amazon facilities too.

“We figure, … go the independent route which is worker-led,” says Christian Smalls, who was fired from JFK8 last year after organizing a walkout to protest the company’s lack of physical-distancing and COVID-19 protections. “That will build more confidence for workers that want to join because they’ll be like, ‘Hey look, this is something that is employee-driven, this is not a third party coming in, this is you guys creating your own union with your own set of rules and negotiations.’ I think that’s more appealing to the worker.”

Smalls tells Truthout he isn’t surprised by the outcome in Bessemer, having witnessed Amazon’s union-busting tactics firsthand during TCOEW organizers’ visit to the Alabama facility in February. “I was disappointed like everyone else, but I wasn’t discouraged,” he says. “There were some missed opportunities that [RWDSU] didn’t do that we learned from going down there, so we’re going to try to learn from those mistakes.”

TCOEW organizers say one thing they’ve learned is to take a slower, more cautious approach in order to build enough internal support within the large warehouse for an independent union. “We’re just trying to get all the pieces in order so that we do it effectively rather than just rushing into it,” Palmer says.

JFK8 has several advantages over Bessemer, they say. For one thing, the warehouse has been around longer, and TCOEW organizers have more direct experience at the facility and a good reputation and influence among the workforce. Moreover, New York is a union-friendly state.

TCOEW organizers say they just starting to hand out union cards and pamphlets to workers at the facility. They’re not just trying to build informal support for a union, they say, but are trying to build a more robust workers’ committee fully committed to the project and ready to face the company’s union-busting efforts. Smalls says they hope that by emphasizing worker-to-worker relationships — instead of relying on outside union organizers — they will be able to build trust among those working at the plant.

After Smalls was fired for helping organize the March 30, 2020, walkout at JFK8, Palmer faced disciplinary action, ironically, for violating Amazon’s physical-distancing rules even though he was protesting to pressure the company to enforce those very rules. On April 10, 2020, Palmer says he was given a “final write-up,” typically given for repeated violations, without receiving any previous write-ups.

In November 2020, a federal judge dismissed Palmer and others’ lawsuit arguing the company failed to track and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 among workers or follow proper guidelines provided by public health agencies. But in February 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Amazon for failing to protect workers at warehouses in Staten Island and Queens and accused the company of illegally retaliating against workers, including Palmer and Smalls.

Amazon maintains that it has always followed public health guidance for COVID-19 and provided employees with adequate personal protective equipment. Moreover, the company describes the New York AG’s filing as failing to present an “accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic.”

Amazon Spokesperson Maria Boschetti responded to the union push at JFK8, telling Truthout in a statement, “We respect our employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment. Across Amazon, including in our fulfillment centers, we place enormous value on having daily conversations with each employee and work to make sure direct engagement with our employees is a strong part of our work culture.”

Still, TCOEW organizers says management at the Staten Island warehouse has kept a watchful eye on their efforts. Palmer, for instance, tells Truthout that in February, he and small group of workers were told they had to attend a refresher hazmat training on potentially hazardous materials. But when the group got to an orientation room for the training, they were instead shown a video about “code of business conduct and ethics.” The video, he says, warned against employees’ discussing potential safety issues or other “sensitive” information on social media.

At this point, Palmer says, he’s not worried about further retaliation since he’s already in the public spotlight for speaking out against the company’s attempt to punish him for his organizing efforts. Smalls was already fired, and says he has nothing else to lose. “What’s the worst that can happen? We’ve already been through the fire,” he says.

The fight for COVID protections for Amazon workers has taken Smalls and other TCOEW organizers to Amazon headquarters as well as several of CEO Jeff Bezos’s mansions over the past year. The organization is still campaigning on behalf of families that lost loved ones due to the Amazon employees being exposed to COVID at its warehouses. The organization is demanding the company pay those families at least $200,000 each, saying Amazon’s offer of two months of free counseling isn’t nearly enough.

Jordan Flowers, another a JFK8 worker, tells Truthout he was fired in June because he couldn’t work amid the pandemic due to his lupus nephritis. The company rehired him the following week, Flowers says, but wasn’t paying him since he couldn’t come into work, so he had to file for unemployment for several months. The company is only just now beginning to make accommodations for him, he says, potentially placing him on paid leave. He now needs a kidney transplant and fears he could be fired again and lose his health insurance.

“I was kind of sad to talk about [my condition] at first, but that gave me the opportunity to tell the world what it is, so now it gives other people who are scared to talk about their medical issue, on the job or not, a chance to talk about it,” Flowers tells Truthout. “I’m giving the voice of employees with medical issues a chance to speak out, especially since Amazon’s not union, and they can do whatever they want.”

Flowers says he’s in talks with attorneys about the possibility of taking legal action against the company over what he calls a wrongful termination in the midst of the pandemic. “Amazon makes blood money. They would rather see their employees suffer but make the customers happy,” he says. Amazon Spokesperson Boschetti didn’t respond to specific questions about Flowers’s employment status.

Even if TCOEW is unable to build enough support for a union at JFK8, they’re still pursuing several legal challenges that have already forced changes at the facility. These kinds of indirect strategies are being increasingly eyed by labor and union organizers in the aftermath of the Bessemer election, with unions using protests and other forms of public pressure to get Amazon to make changes that workers want. An Amazon worker group called Amazonians United Chicagoland, for instance, has led protests and walkouts in the Chicago area throughout the pandemic.

Meanwhile, labor organizing at other Amazon facilities is also gaining steam. In Iowa, a local chapter of the Teamsters Union has been working on organizing Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers. Teamsters Local 238 Secretary-Treasurer Jesse Case told The New York Times the group is also trying to take a different route than RWDSU, saying they don’t want to rely on the union “election process to raise standards.”

Union organizers typically need to win an election at individual facilities for a large company like Amazon. Once organizers get 30 percent of workers to sign a card saying they’re interested in a union, the NLRB will hold an election. It takes a simple majority of votes to establish a union. If a majority of workers sign union cards, however, a company can voluntarily recognize the union. While it’s unlikely that Amazon would do so, a clear majority would increase public pressure and potentially force the tech giant’s hand.

RWDSU has said the organization has heard from more than 1,000 Amazon workers at other facilities who are interested in unionizing. But the union has yet to indicate whether or at which facilities they might push for an election.

Amazon’s victory in the David-versus-Goliath unionization effort in Bessemer has intensified pressure on Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster and pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, one of the most ambitious attempts to strengthen the rights of workers and unions in decades. That pressure appears to be working: Conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin announced he would co-sponsor the bill Monday. If passed, the legislation would ban many of the union-busting tactics Amazon used to crush the organizing drive.

The legislation would be “a step toward the right direction,” Smalls says. “It won’t solve all the issues, but at least it allows us to organize without union-busting, and if there is union-busting … to hold the company or employees accountable. I think it’ll also help galvanize workers to begin these workplace committees and form their own unions. I think it’ll be a lot easier.”